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Catherine Bray: Electoral College versus National Popular Vote

Catherine Bray is Director of International Relations at the American Legislative Exchange Council in Washington, DC, and U.S. Executive Director of the Atlantic Bridge.

The Washington political community loves a tightly run race and the Democrats are currently putting on a terrific show. Election pundits are convinced the race will run all the way to the August Democratic Convention in Denver. If this does happen, Florida could find itself the centerpiece of another major political scuffle since the Democratic delegates have been disenfranchised for defying party rules and holding early primaries (For the record Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama by a 2-1 margin in Florida). The Sunshine State was of course at the heart of the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election drama, when the final result was delayed for 36 days. But what if there was a repeat of this kind of electoral uncertainty in 2008? It would undoubtedly stir up the debate between supporters of the current electoral system and those that are quietly working to replace it. 

The system by which America selects its President is known as the Electoral College. This month, the Governor of Illinois (a Democrat), is considering signing a bill that would take the U.S. one step closer to a system of direct democracy. Obtaining one nationwide popular majority is a far simpler task than winning concurrent majorities across 50 states.  Many liberals believe that changing America’s system for electing its President will raise their candidates’ chances of winning.

As a Brit now resident in the United States I have quickly come to understand that America’s love of the Constitution and the amount of time Americans spend talking about it are not idealized mirages projected by Hollywood screenwriters. Defending a vision of America as the founding fathers intended is an important part of Americans’ identity. The Constitution provides the American people with a system for electing their president, and they have stuck to it for more than 200 years. The Electoral College, baffling as it seems, ensures that all states, regardless of size or make-up are taken seriously and have a say in the democratic process – it also balances the power of voters in rural and urban areas. The Electoral College is a body of electors chosen by each state and determined by voters’ presidential preference. In all states except Nebraska and Maine, which award electoral votes proportionally, the winner of the plurality vote gains all the delegates.

Officially, doing away with the Electoral College in favour of a direct national election would require a constitutional amendment – no small task. But has liberal America found another way?

A group called National Popular Vote is spearheading efforts to create a “multi-state compact” where states switch their Electoral College votes from state winners to the national vote winner. This arrangement is triggered when the size of the compact together comprises a majority of Electoral College votes. The magic number for this to happen is 270 (there are 538 Presidential Electors in total). 

There are some obvious reasons why U.S. state legislators should not entertain the interstate-compact idea. Firstly, national campaigns could be won in large highly urbanized states like New York and California, narrowing the range of voter issues and lowering the “electoral worth” of smaller, more rural (and usually more conservative) states. This would also change the nature of the race – national popularity starts with national fame; George Clooney for president anyone? (Actually, Jack Bauer for president doesn’t seem such a bad idea.) The system would also allow for a regional candidate to win – past regional candidates have included the racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace in 1968.

The most worrying result of direct national elections, however, is the reduced legitimacy of the presidency. The interstate-compact not only bypasses the Constitution but does not require the agreement of all 50 states. In a field of six to eight candidates, direct election would render the current two party system obsolete – the White House could be won on a single issue and a very low percentage of the national vote. Whilst in Britain we are forced to accept a Prime Minister with no popular mandate to govern, it seems unfathomable that America would actually opt to lessen the legitimacy of the presidency and weaken the position of the White House. 

Unfortunately, the interstate-compact is not some pie in the sky idea that could never come to pass. So far, 364 legislators have sponsored 43 bills across 47 states in the U.S. supporting the idea. The Maryland state legislature passed such a bill in 2007, with Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, signing the legislation. If the compact does become a political reality in the United States by brushing aside the wishes of America’s founding fathers, it will be a sad day for traditional American democracy and a fatal blow to the power of smaller states to shape their country’s destiny.


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